MIDDLETOWN — After Diego Arevalo, 22, of Stephens City, completed the drive-thru portion of his graduation ceremony at Lord Fairfax Community College on Friday afternoon, he could be spotted taking photos with his family on campus.

His family was beaming with joy, as Arevalo said he was the first person in his family to receive a college degree, which was an associate degree in nursing.

“It’s a good moment for not only myself, but also my family,” he said.

Arevalo was one of about 1,330 graduates in LFCC’s Class of 2021. Of those graduates, 345 were from Frederick County, 165 from Winchester and 38 from Clarke County.

For students like Arevalo, there were many hurdles to jump through to earn their degree this year. All students had to pivot from in-person to virtual learning in March of 2020 due to mandates by the governor to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They also didn’t gather together for commencement for the second year in a row, holding a college-wide ceremony completely online instead.

However, this year the graduates were able to don their caps and gowns for a drive-thru ceremony on LFCC’s Middletown campus on Friday afternoon. Students drove up to an outdoor stage, quickly got out of their vehicle, received their diploma individually from administrators on stage and then hopped back into their car, where they could drive away to take photos on campus.

This year’s graduation also marked the 50th commencement ceremony at LFCC. In the fall of 1970, 577 students first entered the college’s doors. Since then, LFCC has served more than 400,000 students and conferred more than 24,000 degrees.

“What a year this has been,” said LFCC President Kim Blosser at the virtual ceremony streamed live online on Saturday. “Through it all you’ve overcome whatever obstacles have been placed in front of you, and you’re now graduates.”

Blosser acknowledged that she’s aware many graduates have been fighting challenges throughout their college career, adding that she and staff are proud that they didn’t let the global pandemic stop them from obtaining their degree.

“This just proves if the pandemic can’t stop you from being a graduate, you are resilient and you can persevere through anything,” Blosser said.

After obtaining her associate degree in nursing from LFCC this year, graduate Deanna Anderberg, 38, said she felt a “major relief” following her drive-thru graduation.

She said it was very stressful taking online classes and completing clinicals during the pandemic, adding there were lots of tears while she was in school.

“Nursing school in general is stressful,” Anderberg said. “It’s hard to communicate, too, when you’re not in person, so that was extra stress, but we all got through it and as a school we powered through.”

Her biggest lessons learned from LFCC have been patience and perseverance, she said.

Anderberg also preferred the drive-thru graduation more than a traditional graduation ceremony, because she didn’t have to sit through any long-winded speeches.

“It was a nice change actually,” she said.

She and other graduates were surprised they were able to get any sort of in-person ceremony this year, which they appreciated because it made them feel recognized.

During the virtual ceremony, LFCC graduate Faith Dellinger, who earned an associate of arts and sciences degree in general studies, gave a speech touching on the graduates’ collective resilience throughout the pandemic.

While the Class of 2021 has experienced a very different year from students before them, Dellinger said she would also describe their time at LFCC as a “unique” one.

“This has given us the chance to be resilient,” she said. “We have been faced with so many changes, so many questions with no answers and so many what ifs but look at us now. We have adjusted, we are bouncing back and we are resilient.”

She added that the pandemic left students with only two options — to feel optimistic or defeated.

“Although we may have wanted to give up many times, I am so proud of us for believing in the future, having an optimistic outlook and pushing through,” Dellinger said.

— Contact Anna Merod at amerod@winchesterstar.com

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